Monday, February 09, 2009

Our Retrouvaille Weekend

We're back from our Retrouvaille weekend. It was not at all what I expected. I'm glad.

I'm having a hard time shaping my thoughts into something that I can write about it, but I want to for several reasons: 1) It's an amazing program, and I want other people to know about it because I think it really offers genuine help, and 2) it has already made a big difference for us.

I went to Retrouvaille very unsure. I knew how I felt about my marriage and I was unsure if I should trust it. I was going for two reasons--first, because E asked me to and I thought that was a huge deal, and second because I wanted an answer. I wanted to know if I should be married (or remarry?) or even consider continuing a relationship with him. Well that idea went right out the window the first night when they told us not to make any decisions. Ultimately, I am glad though. Not having the pressure of finding an "answer" allowed me to be a part of the program and receive its benefits much more than I could if I was trying to solve a problem the whole time (and in turn, I believe we're on the right path because of taking the program seriously).

It's so hard doing basically anything related to a failing marriage. I already know from experience the pain and humiliation of going to counseling for the first time. I know how painful it is to look your parents or your kids in the face and tell them that you're not going to be married anymore. So I guess showing up at a marriage program for failing marriages and feeling anxious shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was. It was so embarrassing to sit there in a room full of other people I didn't know (and with whom was trying as hard as I could to avoid making eye contact). Our very presence there felt like I was wearing a sign saying "yeah, we can't get along. How you doin'?" The first night I was really on edge. The other strike I already had against me (and E's the same) is how cynical I am. I tend to think I'm above a lot of the "school-y" techniques speakers use to get folks motivated, or talking, or whatever at a workshop. I feel like I've seen it all (or done it with my classes) and no, you can't make me do something stupid.

Was it hokey at times? Yes. BUT (and as I always say to E, it's a BIG BUTT), we did everything we were asked and *gasp* it worked. Even when it was hokey. Eventually it stopped feeling hokey and we noticed that it was bringing real, productive, honest conversation. It didn't matter anymore. Ugh, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't explained much about the program at all.

The real benefit of this program, for fraidy cats like us, is that you NEVER do any large group sharing. In fact, the people who run the program discourage you from using any free time to socialize. They tell you that you're there to focus on your relationship. Of course, we did end up making a few friends at our quick meals, but during the sessions there is NO interaction with other couples. All of the work and dialogue is done between you and your spouse ONLY. For somebody like me who is shy (no, I mean it... I get squirmy about talking in a large group) it provided a lot of comfort. I was able to really do what they asked, and I think E was too.

Retrouvaille is run by three couples who went through the program themselves years ago. It's a structured, "canned" program, but the couples each tell their own story to explain each part of the program. In each case, these couples had been through nightmarish situations, and they laid it all out on the table. They were open and honest in a way that I have never seen somebody do about their relationship. And it was a great comfort. They were also joined by a Catholic priest who talked at each session. The program is Catholic in origin, but open to anyone of any (or no) faith. It comes from that perspective at times, but it's not preachy--nobody is trying to get the people there to convert. Some of the weekends are run by a Protestant pastor and his wife.

(Our priest was awesome. Completely real. Swearing, joking, kind-and-honest-real. :) He was amazing. I had also been nervous about being the only non-Catholic there... I wasn't, and it was so not even an issue.)

The basic structure of the program is that you go through multiple sessions where you listen to the couples/ priest talk for a while and then they split you up to write, then you meet back in your own room to dialogue about what you've written. It's all very structured, and you move in baby steps. You learn skills, bit by bit, that teach you how to express your feelings without blame, and to listen and understand without judgement. I know this sounds so preschool, so remedial, but WE NEEDED IT. As I worked through the sessions, I started to think about how much so many people need that. Not just married people--though E and I are an excellent example of how not being able to communicate effectively can be disastrous, so many people are unable to do so in any situation.

After we'd been there for a while, we started talking about how we wished something like that had been a mandatory part of our preparation for marriage (but you can't go unless you're married anyway, so that was all just talk...) but also how it's not really marriage training, it's human being training. It was NOT LIKE any other conferences or retreats I have ever been to--work-related, or religious. It wasn't just sappy talk about how having faith would heal our broken down relationship. It wasn't about just being happy and hugging it out. That wouldn't work for us. We have real, ugly stuff between us, and a long history of being at our wits' ends. (People at the end of their ropes do and say amazingly awful things.) We need concrete guidelines and tools. We need to hear that other people have been through the same or worse--not to just sit and listen, but to see how they've used the tools we were given to not only move beyond their pain, but to build a relationship that is more connected than most people in this world can ever hope for.

I don't have any answers after this weekend, but I have tools. I have my commitment to continuing to use those tools, and I have E's. I have the gift of his honesty and the assurance that at least for this weekend we were able to really listen to each other. Retrouvaille was also a gift of a lot of really positive, blame-and-judgement-free communication. I'm not naive enough to think that this is a panacea or that we're "fixed", but we have what we need if we want to use it. Retrouvaille is a 12 week program (and then a lifetime of working at your relationship with your spouse), and we have 12 follow-up sessions to go through as we continue to work through all of this. We're going to finish on my 30th birthday. :) I can't think of a better birthday present.

I cannot recommend this program highly enough (and I know I'm not even through with it). They have it all over the US and the world. The people that run it are genuine, caring, and so helpful.... and they've been there themselves. If our struggles have taught me anything, it's that you just don't know what goes on between two people... and this weekend showed me that there are probably a lot of people out there who could use a program like this to help them reconnect or connect at a deeper level with their spouse, and figure out how to COMMUNICATE more effectively. We all need that. It's not about sugary sweet emotion and romance, it's about figuring out how to move beyond frustration, anger, and hurt. Check it out. I mean it. It's really an amazing gift.

Hope you're all blessed today. I'm satisfactorily tired, and really grateful for the opportunity to begin such a program with my best friend.